MILLTOWN – A rocky, bare lot in the shadow of the Milltown water tower is almost all folks here ever expected out of the field squished between the railroad tracks and Interstate 90.

That’s how it looked two winters ago when Billy Izzard, a recently laid-off union masonry worker, strolled down a dirt road behind his home and saw the wide open space. For whatever reason, despite the knapweed and rocky soil, Izzard, a lifelong gardener, saw opportunity.

“You’re not going to get anything by doing nothing,” he said recently while raking leaves and putting down llama scat at what is now the Milltown Garden Patch.

In the last six months, with the help of volunteers and generous donations, the empty field blossomed into a community garden that this summer for the first time produced fresh food for a local charity. Izzard was cleaning up after the Harvest celebration the weekend before.

“It was a lousy gardening season,” Izzard bemoaned, considering the number of times he had to replant the pumpkin and corn.

Yet, in so many ways, the season was a success. The acre-and- a-half parcel that makes up the garden holds ten gardening plots. A beautiful sign above flower beds greets visitors. A fire pit with benches and a compost pile form the far eastern edge. A fence with 6-foot rock pillars constructed from stones found in the garden keep out hungry deer. In fact, piles of rock lining the entire garden acts as a reminder of the hours spent tossing rocks out of the garden space to prepare the soil for planting.

Izzard, a longtime brick layer, has dirt under his fingernails and calluses from raking.

“I’m not an an academic,” he said. “I do the leg work.”

Not owning a computer, Izzard enlisted the help of his neighbors, Terry and Heidi Starrett, owners of Computer Central on East Broadway in Missoula, who helped build the garden a website and organize a spring fundraiser where they raised $1,400.

Izzard’s son-in-laws, Justin McEwen and David Link, were instrumental in the garden’s progress, too, he said.

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Izzard has big plans for the community garden, including donating fresh vegetables to the Bonner School’s lunch program, selling pumpkins to raise money for a scholarship for a local child, increasing the number of plots available to local residents and selling enough of the vegetables from a stand on site that could help cover the operating costs.

“I’m a dreamer,” he said.

This year, the garden produced 52 pounds of snap peas and green beans, 79 pounds of red potatoes and 17 pounds of tomatoes, all of which was donated to the Missoula Food Bank. The soil also produced five decent pumpkins.

Many residents here utilize the food bank, Izzard said. In the future, he hopes locals won’t have to travel any farther than the community garden.

“Then they don’t burn up a bunch of fuel trying to get there,” he said.

Also, residents in the area can pay for a garden plot for personal consumption.

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This isn’t the first time a Milltown community garden has blossomed during a time of economic turmoil.

During World War I, food prices skyrocketed, and in an effort to bring affordable food to Milltown residents, the Anaconda Copper Co. decided to plow 11 acres of its land– where the empty lumber yard now sits– for families to grow their own vegetables. That’s how the Victory Gardens were born.

Resurrecting that piece of Milltown history close to its original location is meaningful but unintentional, as Izzard wasn’t aware of the history until the Milltown Garden Patch was already under way.

Children in the Bonner School’s AWARE program volunteered at the community garden once a week this summer, picking rocks, planting seeds and weeding. AWARE is a treatment and mental-health service program for kids with higher needs. Connecting with nature and giving back to the community is important for these kids, said Tiffany Bartolomei, a licensed counselor with the program.

Last summer, the kids worked in a garden in Missoula. But when Bartolomei heard about the Milltown Garden Patch, she had the kids begin helping there.

“It seemed more powerful to me,” she said. “It seemed to make more sense to be in Milltown. I think gardening can be therapeutic for kids.”

And for adults. Since he was little Izzard has gardened because of the hobby’s therapeutic power. It appears he’ll reap that power for at least another year. Though the crops have all been harvested, discussions of planting season have already begun.

“It was a great year,” Izzard said. “A lot was accomplished. It makes you feel good that you can help out.”

Meanwhile, the students in the AWARE program are brainstorming fundraising ideas.

They are thinking of hosting a spaghetti feed to raise money for next year, but also to spread the word about this growing community project.

“It’s grassroots,” Bartolomei said. “It’s just getting off the ground now. I think it’s awesome for the community, especially if we can get the kids involved in the community working and learning.”

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com

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